I’m back from a week of retreat with our beautiful teachers Kittisaro and Thanissara. I worked with the Ānāpānasati steps as my main practice, as I often do, along with the Kuan Yin devotional practices that were the emphasis of the retreat.
We often hear the teaching that meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. This instruction is helpful, because doing so is quite difficult, and accurate to the deep implications of mindfulness—that when seen clearly, with an unconfused heart, everything contributes to the insights into unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and selflessness. Both of those are true.
But I think the teaching also serves an ego-soothing function, telling the beginning meditator that it’s not their fault that their mind is beyond their control—that’s just the nature of the mind. It supports self-compassion and patience. All good, except that that soothing teaching may be inhibiting real progress in meditation.
Just because mindfulness isn’t about stopping your thoughts doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful to work on doing so, or that the stopping of discursive thought isn’t actually a central feature of the entire path.
It is necessary to stop thinking.
The idea that it’s not relates to a common derogation of samādhi and meditative absorption in the mindfulness world, and in the Mahāsi-influenced parts of the Theravāda world as well. But it has no basis in the teachings of the Buddha, and is not supported by the meditation instructions in the Canon.
There is no instruction on “mindfulness of thinking” in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. It’s clear that the teachings on establishing focus through connecting and sustaining attention (vitakka-vicāra) imply that discursive thought is suppressed in meditation through sustained focus on a chosen object of awareness. Even if your object is “open” awareness itself, sustained focus on awareness as an object means there will be no space for discursive thinking to take off. The most thoughts can do in a concentrated mind is bubble up briefly out of the substrate and pop—they often don’t even finish a few words. There’s just no room for them in a stabilized attentional field.
One shift in emphasis in our meditation that can really help is to not just come back to the chosen object of meditation, but to come back to the perception of silence in the discursive mind around the chosen object. Learning to recognize and savor silence in the mental field is a powerful support for extending that silence for longer and longer periods. Doing this takes energy, because habitual thinking (papanca) is a very deep groove. But as long as that energy is present, this very wholesome interrupting of habitual thinking can develop, and the energies of tranquility and immersion have a much greater chance of getting momentum.